The Last Taboo
With the May 2006 release of the film based on Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code, the debate that has rocked the world for three years may finally begin to subside. As the atmosphere clears, and with all aspects of the debate having been examined many times over, will the controversy surrounding Mary Madgalene still have anything to reveal to us?
I, for one, would assert that it does. But the revelation I have in mind touches an as-yet unconsidered aspect of the debate.
The Sexuality of Christ
Magdalene's shock value consists in the simple fact that highlighting her presence in the life story of Jesus changes the story. It forces us to think differently about the savior. If we continue to believe that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God, i.e., divinity incarnate in human form, then we must consider that the divine status does not exclude sexual intercourse. This possibility destroys the image of Jesus as chaste, continent, virginal, standing fully above the temptations of the flesh. If the Son of God impregnated Magdalene, a mortal woman, it is also possible that their congress inaugurated a sacred blood line—although, it must be said, divine genealogy is quite an arcane notion. Are we to imagine there would be something special in the actual genetics of a blood-line descended from Jesus Christ? Such is the unstated assumption of the Priory of Sion conspiracy, or Sion scenario, as I have called it in my review of The Da Vinci Code. Jesus must have been special, genetically, for his blood-line to matter so much. The Sion scenario resumes the ancient notion of theocracy, genealogical descent from the gods, and applies it to the figure of Jesus.
Oddly enough, this scenario does not conflict with the long-standing ideology of Jesus as Pantocrator, spiritual ruler of the world. In fact, theocracy is consistent in many respects with the doctrine of the Incarnation. (It could be said that the Catholic Church is a theocracy that resists being labeled as such. In other words, it wants to operate like a theocracy but not be accountable for doing so.) The blasphemy implied in the Sion scenario is not that Jesus was genetically different—if he truly were the virgin-born incarnation of a divine being, he would have been different down into his genetic structure—but that he could have transferred that difference to a line of descendents by engaging in the mundane act of procreation.
Many people of faith consider the notion that Jesus was married to a woman who bore him children to be the ultimate sacrilege that one might direct against him. To them, the sexuality of Christ is totally incompatible with his divinity, but this was not always the case among believers. In The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and Modern Oblivion (published in 1983, the year Holy Blood, Holy Grail was released in the United States), distinguished art historian Leo Steinberg showed that in previous times the sexuality of Jesus was widely regarded as proof that Christ had assumed the full guise (or burden, if you will) of humanity. "How then could he who restored human nature to sinlessness be shamed by the sexual factor in his humanity?," Steinberg asks (p. 17).
This line of reasoning is consistent with the view held by many devout people through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Steinberg presents dozens of examples of Christian art to prove his point: for example, Giovanni Bellini's Madonna and Child (above), pictured on the cover of his book. In this painting, as in many other representations of the Madonna and the "Christ Child," the mother makes a gesture that brings attention to the genitalia of the infant. Or she may actually be fondling it. Steinberg says that this pose was a convention in Christian art so essential to the notion of the Incarnation that "many artists came to regard the Incarnate's sex as a necessary exhibit" (p. 35). Among the dozens of paintings he presents to illustrate this convention is the Adoration of the Magi (1487) of Domenico Ghirlandaio, where an aged magus inspects the penis of the divine infant, held up to his scrutiny by the mother. Other versions of the Adoration, by Jan van Scorel (1535) and Pieter Breughel (1564), are no less explicit.
Commenting on paintings of the circumcision, Steinberg cites no less an authority than Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who argued that "the circumcision is proof of the true humanity he [Christ] has assumed" (p. 55). For many centuries, the "first and last wounds" of Jesus were closely linked in theological argument: the first, circumcision, was the proof of his full humanity, the second, the crucifixion, was the proof of his mortality. Devout people in former times who believed that Jesus rose from death also believed that he was fully incarnated in his sexuality, the "fallen condition" of humanity," otherwise his mortal status would have been incomplete and the efficacy of his miraculous resurrection, flawed.
The Virile Savior
Steinberg is extremely discrete in handling these touchy issues, and nowhere does he broach irreverence or blasphemy. He does not even remotely suggest that Jesus, fully incarnated in human sexuality, may actually have engaged in sexual behavior. Instead, he lets the art speak for itself:
Ecce Homo, "Behold the man." Man of Sorrows (c. 1525) by Flemish artist Maerten van Heemskerck is one of several arresting images of Jesus with an erection to be found in Steinberg's monograph. Some images even suggest an erection on the man crucified on the cross. There is no surviving image of Jesus engaged in sexual intercourse, but the erection clearly tells us that he was fully capable of such an act. "The humanation of God entails, along with mortality, his assumption of sexuality," Steinberg wrote, resting his case. Wilhelm Reich made exactly the same argument in The Murder of Christ, where he presented Christ as the supreme expression of the fully embodied life-force (eros, orgone) and male exemplar of orgasmic potency. If Steinberg is correct, Reich's concept of a virile-vital Christ would have been totally acceptable to many Christians in the former times.
Another convention of Christian art involves the motif of the "groin-searching hand," as Steinberg calls it. This is evident in Renaissance paintings from many countries, such as the Entombment from the atelier of Germain Pilon, (c. 1540).
Steinberg argues that this gesture, seen even in well-known Pietas, would have been regarded with acute pathos by the faithful. Not only is it the typical, wince-evoking gesture of a man hurt in his most vulnerable parts, but it can be read as a sign of the humility of the superhuman Christ, showing that he accepted the fallen condition of sexuality even in death.
The fondling of the Christ child's genitalia, the erection on the man on the cross, and the groin-searching gesture occurred widely in medieval and Renaissance art, but the emphasis on the savior's sexuality stems from a much earlier source, located squarely within Christian tradition. In the City of God, Saint Augustine wrote:
Augustine does not discuss the genitalia of the Redeemer, but if he thought that the organs of woman—that lowly creature and instrument of the Devil—are to be glorified in the afterlife, it is more than likely that his theological argument would allow for the male organ to achieve even higher glorification through the Incarnation. In any case, this is how it looks by the evidence of Renaissance art. In the end, Steinberg insists that Jesus was chaste, and asserts that chastity has a supreme religious value. Equally so does the fully incarnate sexuality of the Redeemer, even though it is not enacted in carnal intercourse.
With the widespread debate over the sexuality of Jesus raised by The Da Vinci Code, it would seem that the taboo is not merely being breached, but totally demolished. Yet this is not really so.
Amazingly, no scholar or historian commenting on the issue of the sexual life of Jesus raised by the The Da Vinci Code refers to Steinberg's monograph. (An advanced search on "Da Vinci Code/ Steinberg" in Google brings up my long article on MM on this site, but no other association of these two elements in current media or writing.) Yet this reference is invaluable, because the material in Steinberg's book anticipates a crucial distinction: that is, between the claim that Jesus had sex with Mary Magdalene, and the claim that he fathered children on her. These are utterly different claims, yet they are not (to my knowledge) clearly distinguished anywhere in the DVC/Sion debate. Steinberg does not discuss sexual intercourse between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, of course, but his book introduces a nuance essential to how we might imagine their intimate union. He firmly states that the fully incarnate sexuality of Christ does not imply enactment of sexual behavior. Call this the first nuance: the attainment of sexual potency does not imply performance of the sexual act—as anguished teenagers of both sexes will attest! Now consider a further nuance: intercourse may be performed, but not for the purposes of procreation. Once again, we touch on the deepest and fondest desire of the adolescents on the planet.
Experts on Gnosticism, theology and the history of religions who comment on the DVC all equate the act of sexual intercourse with procreation. The spin of the claim made in the Sion scenario, and cast in fictional form by the DVC, is this: Jesus had sex in order to procreate. The spin leaves many believers in outrage and confoundment, but it does worse as well. The moment our attention goes to the sexuality of Jesus Christ, we are directed to his descendents. The focus of this diversionary tactic is Mary Magdalene who is equated with a sacred vessel, the "sang gral" or Holy Grail. Magdalene, we are told, is the long-sought grail vessel because she was impregnated by Jesus and carries the fruit of the sacred blood-line in her womb. We are encouraged to believe that in this claim we are being let in on a tremendous secret.
Gnostic scholars who discuss The Da Vinci Code in their books, in articles, and in documentaries, usually cite the Nag Hammadi writings, especially the famous kissing cameo in the Gospel of Philip. In fact, the papyrus page where that passage appears (NHC II, 3: 63. 35) is damaged right at the line that says where Jesus kissed his "companion." Scholars restore the text to read "on the mouth." He could as well have kissed her on the forehead, or on the ass, for that matter. This latter may sound like an outrageous remark, intended purely for offence, but there is something even more outrageous in the works here, by which I mean the negligence of the experts who discuss this passage as if it lent support to the claim that Jesus and Magdalene had children. Scholars such as Elaine Pagels seem to allow, even if just marginally, that the Gnostic cameo of Jesus kissing Magdalene implies a physical intimacy consistent with sexual union. By negligence I mean that in accepting to discuss how the Gnostic materials might support the DVC/Sion claim that Jesus and Magdalene were parents, the experts do not inform the public of something essential to the Gnostic world view.
What the experts don't tell us is that the couple described in the Gnostic writings, if they were truly a Gnostic couple, would have rejected procreation, for that was the known policy of Gnostics of all sects.
Of course, I have not read everything written on the DVC in the last three years. But I am somewhat informed on the statements made by the leading scholars in books and documentaries. If, say, Karen King points out somewhere that Gnostics rejected procreation, I missed it. Someone, scholar or not, may have made this point somewhere along the way. (Again, an advanced search in Google yields no results.) What is outrageous is that no expert has clarified this issue in mainstream discourse. Yet all experts agree that Gnostics were radically opposed to procreation. In fact, this is one of the few factors in the mixed bag of Gnostic views upon which all scholars do agree. It is one of the few, solid, consistent things known about the Gnostic world view. There is clear textual evidence, both from within the Gnostic writings and elsewhere, that Gnostics opposed procreation on philosophical grounds, and rigorously practiced abortion.
This being so, it is plainly erroneous, not to say misleading, to cite Nag Hammadi materials in support of the claim that Jesus and Madgalene had children.
The experts have failed to rise to the challenge presented by the debate around The Da Vinci Code, and they have done so in an alarming manner. At the very least, they must be held accountable to elucidate certain points of Gnosticism so that the public can decide how the DVC/Sion claims really stand against these ancient texts. To allow the assumption that Jesus and Magdalene, considered on Gnostic terms, were parents, is irresponsible—but there is worse. The negligence of the experts does not stop there. It goes deeper.
Having introduced (finally!) this essential factor into the debate—that Gnostics opposed procreation—it is only natural to ask, Why did they do this? Why did they refuse it for themselves, and condemn it as bad for the human species?
At first sight, this seems like a defeatist position. If humans do not procreate, how can humanity survive? What is the point of protesting against procreation? Gnostics not only thought it was worth protesting on ethical grounds, but they are known to have practiced abortions among themselves, and more likely than not they assisted others who did not participate in their cultic activities.
The Gnostic stand against procreation has a cosmological basis, closely linked to the ethical principles of the Mysteries. In Gnostic cosmology, the father god Jehovah was identified with Yaldabaoth, an alien deity who pretends to be the sole and supreme lord of the cosmos. Yaldabaoth, also called the Demiurge, wants humanity to take him for a true god (an Aeon, in Gnostic terminology), and many people do regard him as the Creator. Gnostics warned of this delusion in no uncertain terms. They asserted that Jehovah's claim to have made humanity "in his image" is false, and should be rejected. In the Gnostic view, humanity is a self-elaborating projection of the imagination of the Aeons, the true Pleromic Gods, who do not imprint their image on what they emanate.
One of Jehovah's commands to his people (textually the Jews, but by implication the entire human species) was to procreate and spread across the entire earth. We may see in this command the clever ploy of the Demiurge to make the human species conform to a false image of itself, and to lose itself in the mindless proliferation of that image (i.e., by overbreeding). The arrogance of the pretender god infects those who believe his lies and follow his commands. To see ourselves made "in His image" is grandiose, and supports the assumption that we are a unique species with the right to overrun the planet and dominate all that is non-human.
Gnostics objected to procreation because they saw in the philoprogenitive emotion the extension of human egotism in biological terms, taking humankind beyond its proper boundaries relative to the rest of life on earth. I would argue that this is a sane ecological insight.
In ethical terms, Gnostics distinguished three types or classes of human beings: the materialistic type, the psychic or soul-oriented type, and the spiritual or "pneumatic" type. In rejecting procreation, they placed themselves in the third category, but they allowed that people in the first category, who lacked spiritual discernment, would be prone to breed in a mindless and egotistical manner. There was no question that the human race will survive as long as people of that type continue to reproduce. Gnostics emphasized that some people in the second category, those who were open to spiritual enlightenment, could be persuaded not to reproduce, but nothing could be done with the first group. Hence, they accepted that the human species would always breed, but they did not let it be so without comment. They were like non-smokers who openly condemn and oppose smoking, and establish non-smoking zones, rather than just passively stand by and let people smoke.
Yet Gnostics did not merely condemn procreation in others and abstain from it among themselves, they also worked to counteract and remedy the ills attendant to it. They served the offspring of the very people who were overrunning the earth. In the institutions of the Mysteries they adopted into their care many pupils who were the children of other people, and educated them to achieve the highest level of human potential. Without children of their own, they assumed a quasi-parental relation to their pupils and proteges. Without heirs of their own, they made others' children their inheritors. As telestai, The Gnostic teachers in the Mystery Schools were deeply concerned about the future of humankind and the peak potential of our species. To reject procreation was consistent with their sacred commitment to the future of humanity, rather than to the future of their own progeny. Although some rare instances of parental connection do occur in the Mysteries—Hypatia and her father, Theon of Alexandria, for instance—these cases do not contradict the primary ethics of the initiatory system, in which no favor or preference was shown to blood-relations, and generational inheritance was renounced in favor of initiatory transmission.
Granted, these are obscure and complex issues that could not easily be explained in a documentary interview, and, even if explained, might not speak to the minds of people today. But then again, this might be just what people in our time most need to know about Gnostics and the Mysteries. These considerations touch on the issue of population control, one of the great taboos of our time—perhaps the last taboo. If it were more widely understood that Gnostics opposed procreation and practiced birth control, and why they did so, we might have a more lively, more enlightened debate on over-population. Yet no scholar takes the time to discuss this subject or elucidate the Gnostic stance against procreation.
These considerations may seem remote from the issue of the sexuality of Jesus, but in fact they point directly to the core confusion in the debate over The Da Vinci Code. As I have suggested above, this confusion is due to the failure to see the difference between sexual intercourse and procreation. In proposing that Jesus had sex with Mary Magdalene, both the DVC and the Sion scenario place ultimate importance on the offspring produced by their union. But what if they had sex and no offspring? That would have been consistent with their position as Gnostics. And if we are citing Gnostic materials on Jesus and Madgalene, it is only fair that we consider them in Gnostic terms, isn't it?
Linking Jesus to a theocratic conspiracy works sensationally well
in fiction, as the success of The Da Vinci Code shows. The
Sion scenario assumes the divinity of Jesus, otherwise the blood-line
could not be sacred. But Gnostics opposed the Christian view of human
divinity that informs the theocratic
program. In rejecting human divinity (the Incarnation,
theologically speaking), they also rejected the idea of theocracy.
Yet scholars allow Gnostic texts to be cited in wooly-edged discussions
geared to validate the theocratic fantasia proposed by the Priory of
Sion. The best way to counter that fantasia would be to interpret Gnostic
texts on their own terms, but this is never done.
Jesus engaged in sexual intercourse, not to procreate, but purely for the pleasure of it.
The last taboo is not about sexual intercourse but about the pleasure to be had in the sexual act. The debate around the sexuality of Jesus raised by The Da Vinci Code is wrongly focused on procreation, rather than on pleasure. If the perfect man and divine Redeemer could have experienced sexual pleasure for its own sake, what is to be made of the Incarnation and Resurrection, both of which glorify the burden and agony of the Savior for the salvation of humankind? If Jesus and Magdalene were unmarried lovers who engaged in orgiastic sex as a spiritual practice, as the Gospel of Philip clearly indicates, what happens to "the message of love" in the Gospels? If pleasure can link us to the Divine, how can we give pre-eminent importance to pain in religious experience?
Pleasure is the last taboo because when it is introduced into the story of the redeemer—imagined as merely human or as a divine avatar, either way—it throws the redemptive value of suffering into question. Belief in the redemptive value of suffering is the core of salvationist religion. It is the belief that keeps humanity crucified by the grandiose, self-fulfilling drama of self-immolation.
jll: 22 June 2006 Flanders
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2018 by John L. Lash.